Asa Philip Randolph was thirty-six years old and living in Harlem in 1925, when a Pullman porter approached him and asked for help forming a union. Randolph at first said no; he was a journalist, a publisher of a socialist newspaper called the Messenger, and not a labor organizer, he said. But he had the vision to foresee that this union might benefit not only the porters but all African-American workers, so he accepted the challenge, and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was born. Randolph would serve as the union's president for forty-three years.
The porters needed representation. They were paid less and put in longer hours than other railroad workers. Existing unions denied them membership because of their race. Randolph spent ten years traveling from city to city, speaking to porters, and building a national network. As soon as the Brotherhood represented a majority of porters, he went up against their employer, the powerful Pullman Company, which was notoriously no friend of organized labor. "Undainted and unafraid," he forced management to meet the porters' demands and recognize the union as their bargaining agent. This was a significant step in the history of American labor. Once the porters were unionized, union representation would only spread to African Americans in numerous other trades, who had been similarly shut out. And in time the mighty American Federation of Labor would be forced to reverse its exclusionary policy.
In the 1940s, Randolph used his status as an African-American leader to further another cause: equal employment in defense plants. U.S. factories needed workers to produce the arms and vehicles that would be used to win World War II, but the great majority of these manufacturing jobs went to white workers. This was no secret. The president of North American Aviation said flat out that "Negroes will be considered only as janitors and in other similar capacities." When a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt failed to bring results, Randolph made plans to bring thousands of African Americans to march in the segregated city of Washington, D.C. Fearing embarassment in the eyes of the world, Roosevelt issued an executive order requiring companies with defense contracts and the federal government to hire workers without regard to race. Some discrimination remained in these sectors, but many African Americans found opportunities that had previously been denied to them.
Segregation persisted in the U.S. armed forces, however. African Americans had tolerated this policy during World War II, when the need to defeat the Axis Powers overrode other concerns, but when President Harry Truman announced a draft in 1947, the war had been won. This time Randolph proposed a peaceful demonstration in Philadelphia, where in 1948 the Democratic Party was holding its national convention. Truman, worried about losing the African-American vote, signed another executive order, this one calling for the armed forces to integrate as quickly as possible.
Randolph was a dignified, thoughtful, well-spoken man. He never made much money, and he lived in the same Harlem apartment for much of his life. An early proponent of nonviolent change, he was a role model for the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In 1963, he finally put into motion his long-held plan for a gathering of African Americans in Washington, D.C. The March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is remembered as a bright moment in a turbulent decade. It was A. Philip Randolph's gift to us all.